“Please, I need to see him.” My throat is tight and the desperation in my voice hurts my ears, but I force the words out. “I know what you’re going to say, but, just . . . please?”
The thirtysomething nurse standing in front of me in light blue scrubs answers patiently. “I’m sorry. His paperwork is clear. I can’t let you back.”
I feel like I’m watching, listening, from far away. This woman is my total opposite. She’s calm and composed, and it makes the frustration inside me reach new heights. I want to yell, I’m not hysterical! Which I realize will probably only make things worse. I force myself to stay quiet. To think before I speak.
I can’t argue with her. She’s right. It’s well after three in the morning. But I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t stand not being here. And I guess I thought maybe the hospital operated by different rules in the middle of the night. Nighttime can have that kind of magic. Braden is the one who taught me that, but those are his tricks, not mine.
I take a deep breath. “Can you just . . . Does it say my name, specifically? Does it say ‘Hadley Butler’?” I look around as I ask, hoping I won’t find any familiar faces.
Her expression, full of pity, cuts like a knife. “It says ‘no visitors.’ ”
“None? None at all?”
“Just his parents.”
Panic surges through me. I search the room. “Are they here?” Of course they’re here. Their teenage son is in the hospital, where else would they be?
“They’re resting in the med inn.” Relief courses through me. I might get away with visiting without anybody knowing.
I look back up at the nurse. The hospital lights are harsh on her face, casting unforgiving shadows under her eyes and on her cheekbones. My fingers, hanging empty at my sides, long for the familiar weight of my camera. If I were to photograph her in this light, it would be easy to frame her as a villain: the Gatekeeper. But it’s not her fault, I remind myself. She’s not the bad guy.
“Can you just tell me if he’s stable?”
“I can’t share medical information with anyone but family.”
“Is there anything you can do?” I plead, my questions piling atop one another like bricks of an abandoned haunted house. I can’t help it. Because if the tables were turned, I’m positive that he would find a way to visit me. Rules have never meant much to Braden Roberts. But I did. Despite everything, I know that.
Hope drains from me when I meet her apologetic eyes.
I try one last thing. “If I gave you a note, would you give it to him? I mean, I know he can’t read it now. But it’d be there for him, you know, when . . .” I trail off. I’m not sure how to finish the sentence.
I feel at my pockets. Before I drove over here, I sat in my bedroom and frantically scribbled three different versions of a letter. One pathetically details how much I love him; another is an apology, long and rambling; and the shortest one is furious, cursing him for his weakness--cruel and unfair, maybe, but I meant every word. I was going to choose one in the moment, but, really, the only way to be honest would be to give him all three. I fish for them with my fingers.
The nurse sighs. “I . . . I think you should probably just head home. It’s late, and doesn’t school start tomorrow?”
How am I supposed to start senior year without him?
She doesn’t wait for an answer, continuing, “If you’re looking for more information on Mr. Roberts--”
“His name is Braden.” And if he were awake, he’d charm you into having all the visitors in the world.
She takes a long look at me before she says, “If you want more information on Braden, I suggest you reach out to his parents. I’ll make sure they know you were here.”
I take a step backward. “No. Um--” Shit. Shitshitshit. “It’s okay.” Braden’s mom made it perfectly clear that she did not want me here. She might even think I’m the reason her son is in the hospital at all. And maybe I am, a small, scared voice whispers from the depths of my mind. I shake my head, gaze unfocused on my feet. “No, it’s okay. I guess . . . I’ll just go.”
I can hardly believe that for all the ways I can claim Braden as my own, none of them will get me past those doors.
I walk away slowly, noting each step that takes me farther away from him, wondering how I will survive the wondering. Did he see it coming? Did he feel it, the moment he lost control? Was he afraid? But most of all: Is he going to be okay?
“Hey, miss? Um, Hadley? Right?” The nurse’s voice finds me down the hall, just before the exit.
As I turn, a small optimism sparks inside me. “Yeah?”
“He’s eighteen, your boyfriend?”
“Ex-boyfriend.” My voice cracks on the word. “But yeah.”
She nods. She knew his age; it’s on his chart. Her eyes are kind. “Right now, it’s up to his parents. But as an adult, Braden can make the choice for himself, who he wants to see--once he’s able. If your behavior is any indicator . . .” She pauses. “I bet he’ll contact you, when he can.”
I open my mouth to argue that, after today, he might never want to see me again. And I definitely shouldn’t want to see him.
But then her words hit me.
She’s saying that he’ll call me once he’s conscious. When, not if. She thinks he’s going to be okay. Relief burns my eyes.
It’s ambiguous. It might not really mean much. And I wish that I could see that he’s breathing, that he’s here, but I understand that this information is a gift. She isn’t supposed to tell me anything at all about his status. I mean it when I say thank you.
Even with that small piece of information, I still feel defeated as I get into my car. The feeling only deepens when I notice my Great Lakes University portfolio, my most important college application, sitting on the passenger seat. Over the past few weeks, I’ve spent hours and hours getting it ready, debating each photograph in every way I can imagine. I pull the book onto my lap and open the front cover, knowing he’ll be there. He’ll be healthy, alive. So alive. My eyes fill, and all I can make out is a smear of peach. Remembering him like that, electric and urgent, makes my insides riot.
For just a moment, I let it take over--the kind of angry crying that feels like it’s escaping too fast and too hard, like bats swarming from a cave. I picture hundreds of them, hairy and the color of ash, flying out of my twisted mouth. I watch their imaginary wings flap in circles around my car, until suddenly I can’t stand it.
I throw my door open and grab the bound photos, march to the closest garbage can, and slam the book into it with a satisfying clang.
I’ll make a new portfolio. Without him. Or maybe just of him. Or maybe I won’t make one at all. Great Lakes has been my longest-standing goal, a worry and desire constantly lingering just past my fingertips, but compared to life and death, it’s nothing at all.
I take a deep breath, slamming the car door closed behind me. Get ahold of yourself. I sit up straight and wipe my eyes in the rearview mirror. I tilt my head up and down, staring at my reflection, letting the shadows on my face echo the ones I saw on the nurse’s earlier. I look like a Francesca Woodman photograph: haunting and haunted.
I check my phone. It’s three-fifty-two in the morning.
Fifty-two minutes since I arrived.
Time is supposed to heal. But I’m not sure exactly what should heal in this case. Maybe some parts of it need to stay broken.
He and I need to stay broken.
I turn the key in the ignition, knowing I should head home but hesitant to leave him there, alone. I move in a fog until somehow, I reach my driveway.
When I open the side door of the house, I don’t even bother to muffle the jingle of my keys or the thud of my purse on the floor. Nobody stirs to ask me where I’ve been. You’d think I’d be used to the quiet by now, but the reality is lonely and hollow. Feeling like a ghost of myself, I move to my room, shut the door, and crawl into bed.
One night has passed, and so far, time isn’t holding up its end of the bargain.
Becca syncs her phone to the speaker, and an upbeat song fills her kitchen, lit with October sunlight. “There. Happy, Ty?” she asks.
Tyler, sitting with us at the table, nods. “So much better.”
“I’d never heard it so quiet in here,” I add, looking around the room. Tyler and I have been coming to Becca’s house since middle school, and without its signature chaos, it’s almost unrecognizable.
“Yeah, the boys are terrorizing someone else. And I think my parents are at the restaurant.” Becca scowls. “But they could have cleaned up a little before they left.” There’s a huge stack of dishes soaking in the sink. I don’t know where Becca got her hyperorganized gene, but it isn’t from Mr. and Mrs. Gomez.
Becca and I both work at her parents’ diner, Belavinis, which used to serve solely Greek-American food. When Becca’s grandpa passed away over the summer, her mom inherited the restaurant, and she wanted to put a new spin on things. She and Becca’s dad are trying to make it their own.
I glance toward the sink. “Did they come up with anything, um, Greek Mexican?” They’re trying to incorporate Becca’s dad’s family cuisine into the mix.
“What?” She follows my line of sight. “Oh. No, the menu battle rages on.”
“Speaking of food . . .” Ty sits up in his chair. “Anybody else hungry? I could order some pizza.”
“Can’t. I’m supposed to get takeout later with my mom and sister,” I answer, sighing. “Remy’s upset because her latest conquest broke up with her. Or, I don’t know, cheated, maybe?”
Becca looks surprised. “I didn’t know she was dating somebody.”
I shake my head. “I probably just hoped he would go away fast enough that I wouldn’t have to tell you. And she probably didn’t tell you because it’s Wyatt Coleman.”
Becca’s perfectly groomed brows meet. “Wyatt? When did that happen?”
Ty pulls at the drawstrings of his hoodie. “Isn’t he the guy who . . .”
I confirm his suspicions. “Yeah, in the hot tub. With those girls from Richmond.”
Becca straightens her pile of papers, organizing our human biology worksheets, which, weirdly, are all about fetal pigs. We took regular bio last year, but this class is an elective, and it’s been surprisingly hard. “Well, Remy isn’t afraid of . . . a challenge, I guess.”
I snort. “You mean she thinks she can rehab every jerk who looks twice at her?”
“What does Judd say?” Ty asks, referencing my brother, Remy’s twin.
“We barely talk about it anymore. Remy doesn’t listen, so there’s no point.”
Becca doesn’t seem concerned. “I’m sure Remy will be fine. She’s smart.” Her eyes are scanning the diagram in front of her. “She can handle herself.”
“Debatable,” I mutter, a little annoyed. Becca always defends Remy, even when she doesn’t deserve it.
Becca doesn’t notice, though, and instead pulls up her long, dark hair, and I know she’s done gossiping about my sister. She secures her pony with a velvet scrunchie, looking like she’s ready to get to work. “Okay, well, if you’re hungry, Ty, I’ll order something to eat, but only after we finish this.”
Tyler groans. When we decided to hang out here after school today, I don’t think either of us pictured doing homework. Not on a Friday afternoon, anyway.
“Come on, it’s not that bad,” Becca insists. “Look, we can start with the stomach.” She leans over the diagram, her neat lines labeling the organs of the digestive system.
“Well, on the bright side, nothing suppresses an appetite quite like dissection,” I tell Becca. I shudder a little in disgust at the memory of her in class. She was merciless with the knife.
She’s unfazed. “Just avoid thinking about the smell, and you’ll be fine.”
“And that’s it, I’m never eating again.”
I look to Tyler to back me up, but he must have checked out when Becca honed in on our homework. He’s muttering to the song playing, and scribbling lyrics onto the sole of his shoe, a pair of beat-up Vans. I kick his other foot.
He jerks to attention, lifting his head of cropped, dark hair. “Oh. Um. Yeah, Becs. It’s the weekend. Do we really have to do this right now?”
Becca looks between us, her lab partners and closest friends. “I have less than an hour before I have to go work at the swim meet, and then you guys are free to do whatever you want. But, Hads, you’re the one who was worried about the test on Monday. And if we do it now, it’s fresh in your mind.”
Becca and I are both in NHS, the National Honor’s Society, and while Becca’s grades get her there with ease, I’m hanging on by the skin of my teeth.
She continues, “Studies show that if you review the material shortly after you learned it--”
“Yeah, all right,” I interrupt her, trying to avoid a lecture. “That’s the gallbladder.” I point out on the diagram.
“Yes! Okay, just a few more. And then we can move on to reproductive.”
A loud, campy song starts playing on the speaker.
“What is this?” Tyler asks.
I turn to him. “There’s a song you don’t know?”
Becca sighs, incredulous. “It’s from Waitress.” When we don’t react, she adds, “The musical? Sara Bareilles?” She looks at us and decides we’re hopeless. “My choir group performed it last year? It’s a huge hit on Broadway!” Her phone buzzes. “Hold on, it’s Greg.”
Becca takes her boyfriend’s call and leaves the room.
Ty hits his pen rhythmically onto his notebook. “I really have to stop agreeing to come over here after school. Homework on a Friday is criminal.”
“She’s such a good influence,” I agree with dismay.
“Ugh,” he groans, “it’s the worst. Except that my science grades are basically the highest they’ve ever been.” Science has never been Tyler’s strong suit, and this class is in addition to our chemistry class. But I loved regular bio so much last year that I convinced Ty and Becca to sign up for this one too. I’m still sort of surprised that Ty agreed. Maybe he just didn’t want to be left out.